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European Form Pleases Keane As Connacht Aim For Gloucester Revenge

European Form Pleases Keane As Connacht Aim For Gloucester Revenge

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane says the squad’s confidence has been boosted by their unbeaten run in the Challenge Cup as they look forward to a home quarter-final against Gloucester over Easter weekend.

Speaking after the emphatic 50-14 final round win over Oyonnax at the Sportsground, Kieran Keane pointed to the frustration from last weekend’s draw with Worcester Warriors as a key motivating factor in the westerners running eight tries past the French club.

The bonus point victory over Oyonnax guarantees a home quarter-final against Gloucester over the weekend of March 29 to April 1. The Cherry and Whites are familiar opponents for Connacht who lost twice to the English outfit at Kingsholm in the spring of 2015, going down 14-7 and 40-32 in a Challenge Cup quarter-final and Champions Cup qualification play-off respectively.

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Keane will not be reading too much into those results as he plots the downfall of the current Gloucester side, who are now coached by South African Johan Ackermann with former Ireland international David Humphreys their director of rugby since 2014. They finished as runners-up to Pau in Pool 3 and are currently fourth in the Aviva Premiership table.

“We will be tough to beat here in Galway. We are looking forward to it. The season goes on. It is nice to undefeated in this competition and we look forward to it,” insisted the Connacht boss, speaking in the aftermath of their fifth pool success.

“The failure to win last weekend (away to Worcester) hit a nerve with the boys. It certainly hit a nerve with some of us. It was a perfect start. We definitely put a lot of importance on trying to get our starts better and right.

“On this occasion it was good. It was a brilliant start. We broke their back in the first half and got a bit untidy in the second. The game was won in the first half.”

Keane added: “The continuity of our game in European competition has allowed us to develop and has given us a bit of confidence and belief. And the ambition we’ve been seeking, it’s been a good platform for us to achieve that.

“It’s allowed us to develop that confidence and rotate players, to give everyone a good feel for what we’re trying to do. And it’s allowed us to put a little bit of polish on that aspect of continuity.”

Connacht now have a three-week break before the visit of the Ospreys in the GUINNESS PRO14 on Friday, February 9, and Keane said the break will allow the squad to recover some of their walking wounded before the final stretch of the campaign.

“I think we’ve done well, but we’ve got a few knocks and a few bangs. We’ve lost a couple of props and asked another couple of props to step up. I think the break has come pretty much at the right time for us.”

If they overcome Gloucester, Connacht will have a semi-final trip to either Newcastle Falcons, the unbeaten Pool 1 winners, or Brive, a team they defeated twice (38-31 and 55-10) on the way to finishing top of Pool 5. Although there are still some big name teams left in the Challenge Cup, Keane was confident when asked if he thought his charges could go all the way in the competition.

“Yeah, sure. I think the boys do too. It’s a challenge for us. It’s nice to be a part of it. We’ve had some disappointing results and we’ve thrown a few fixtures in the PRO14 away, dare I say it. We’re disappointed about that aspect but we have to look at the positives. This offers us an opportunity to perhaps get some silverware.”

Hooker Dave Heffernan agreed, stating that Connacht will not worry unduly about the identity of their last-eight opponents. His focus, in the aftermath of the runaway triumph over Oyonnax, was on what promises to be a terrific atmosphere at the Sportsground in two months’ time.

“It’ll be unbelievable. The last time we played Glasgow in the knockout stages (in the 2016 PRO12 semi-final) was incredible, so if it’s anything close to that it’ll be unbelievable. The fans that day were something else, so we’d hope for the same again,” said the Ballina man.

“We’ve had a couple of runs against Gloucester in the past. We would love to get one over them, it would be brilliant. There are different squads there to that which played in the past, so it is not something we can think about.”

Heffernan put in an excellent hour’s shift in the Connacht front row on Saturday and said that he was delighted to be back in action after some time out of the team. “It’s been really good to get back for the last few weeks. I was disappointed with a couple of games at the start of the year.

“I hadn’t been in the team for a while, so to get back in the team has been really good. There’s serious competition there at hooker (with Shane Delahunt and Tom McCartney), so any time you get on the pitch you have to take that opportunity,” he added.